Media in today’s terms would be all electronic and digital means including artistic visuals used to transmit messages. So much emphasis is being placed on digital creation but not much attention is being given to critical thinking skills necessary to analyse the information put in front of us.

Media literacy is interdisciplinary and represents a necessary and inevitable, realistic response to a complex, ever-evolving digital environment that immerses us. To become responsible consumers of media certain skills, need to be developed to better analyse and address the media that shapes the way we think, feel, and behave. Let’s take a closer look at the critical thinking skills required to sharpen media literacy, how these skills can be developed from a young age, and explore the challenges arising from being Media “illiterate”.

Children are especially susceptible to being influenced by the media. There are several tools available such as Namle resources to better prepare parents and children to be active instead of passive consumers of media.

Development of Critical Thinking Skills in Children

There are many ways to describe critical thinking, in simple terms it is the ability to think for oneself. It is the ability to analyse, and evaluate information and arguments from different perspectives, recognise patterns and connections, identify, and build meaningful information. However, there is a lot more to it that would be well worth exploring - you can learn more about critical thinking and develop important skills.

These skills after being developed need to be applied in a real-world context. Critical thinking skills are crucial for children to better prepare them to use technology responsibly. Critical thinking skills will also enable children to discern between fact and fiction when sifting through information. Through actively asking questions they can better interpret the messages they receive. The key to critical thinking is asking questions like:

● Who wrote it?

● Who is it aimed at?

● Who will benefit from this content?

● Who is affected by this information? Who are the sources?

Namle provides a comprehensive Parents Guide to Media Literacy in English, Greek, and Spanish, ‘Building Healthy Relationships with Media' that touches on the core aspects of Media literacy and how to teach kids to ask questions when interacting with digital media.

Online Tools for Teaching Media Literacy

The guide explores several real-life examples to help parents start a conversation about fake news and answer their children’s questions about the topic. The site offers another useful resource for building digital resilience, this resource provides valuable insight into recognising red flags in children’s behaviour to determine whether they may have consumed negative media.

The fact is that children are being inundated with media and may find it hard to separate their digital lives from reality if there is no limit to their access to technology. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of media literacy lessons available that can help educators and parents develop critical thinking and reading skills in children. Incorporating these lessons into the school curriculum maybe of much value.

According to an article by IOL, a popular local news site, media literacy is not being adequately taught in schools or universities in South Africa. In an assessment made by Africa Check, a non-profit fact-checking organisation that promotes accuracy in public debate and the media in Africa, it was found that there is limited formal and comprehensive teaching of media literacy in South African schools.

The assessment was led by a team of professional researchers; Prof. Herman Wasserman Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, Dr. Dani Madrid-Morales Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Sheffield Fadiyah Rabin MA student at the University of Cape Town Centre for Film and Media Studies.

The report was originally compiled to determine which media literacy skills are and are not being taught in high schools and universities and what is stopping schools and educators from teaching them. The research conducted for the report was part of a larger project to develop resources for media literacy in the country and consisted of a compilation of findings based on the responses to an online survey provided by 281 educators.

According to the findings, few media literacy skills are taught, generally, aspects of media literacy including knowledge of mass media formats, media freedom, and online bullying, are taught as part of the life orientation subject which is compulsory across the country. However, it indicated that although learners are taught to use the media and how to stay safe online, very little emphasis is focused on how to fact-check and verify the media.

The National Curriculum Statement (NCS) for life orientation, Senior Phase (grades 7-9), recommends teaching about the influence of the media on “self-concept formation and self-motivation,” as well as the impact that the media might have on sexuality and substance abuse. Other points of interest that the assessment explores are how limited access to digital tools and technology is a challenge to teaching media literacy in schools and strategies that can help increase the teaching of media literacy.

Real-Life Case Study in a School Context

As a part of the assessment, a real-life case study was carried out to provide educators with a method to be able to teach students how misinformation works. During the case study, which was conducted in a focus group with high school teachers, respondents indicated that misinformation about the pandemic was a problem at their schools.

The academic head at a private Islamic school in Kwazulu-Natal stated: “We all know, you know, this whole Covid thing, there’s a lot of misinformation. We’ve been getting all the conspiracy theories and so on. And, when the time came for vaccinations, you’d hear kids telling each other, ‘No, it’s not good to have a vaccination, because this is going to happen to you.’ They took it so seriously as if that is going to happen to you. And, as far as the vaccine was concerned, as I said earlier, I come from, I mean, the school that I’m in is very orthodox. So, a lot of parents don’t buy into that as well. So, we had to be very unbiased, very neutral about the whole thing. We couldn’t say it was so good, neither could we say: ‘Don’t go for it’.

Similarly, other teachers also recounted examples of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic that circulated at their schools, such as “a microchip going into your arm” during vaccination, or a rumour that the President would be doing away with the mask mandate. The science teacher went on to explain how a class of 30 girls spread this story to the entire school and eventually stopped wearing their masks. When asked where they found the information, they simply said they got it online.

This is an example of how quickly the lack of media literacy can lead to the spreading of misinformation among the youth, and the consequences thereof. This further implores the importance of instilling media literacy skills in young children.

Crucial Significance of Honing Critical Thinking Skills

The fact is that the significance of honing critical thinking skills to decode the information in front of us remains underemphasized. Media literacy is a multidisciplinary concept in that it draws on knowledge and perspectives from various academic disciplines to develop a comprehensive understanding of how media works and how individuals can critically engage with it.

Media literacy draws upon fields of psychology, sociology, critical theory, ethics, and multiple other faculties to provide individuals with a holistic understanding of media’s influence, its societal implications, and the skills needed to navigate a media-saturated world through applying critical thinking. Media literacy presents a practical approach to the ever-evolving digital realm that envelopes us. The cultivation of these skills is not merely an option but a prerequisite for responsible media consumption. A profound observation emerges about children, who are particularly vulnerable to the persuasive allure of media. The transformative potential of media literacy comes to the fore in preparing parents and children to be active participants rather than passive recipients.

Defending the Rights of Children Through Education

Given the vulnerability of children, as Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, educator, and innovator who is best known for her pioneering work in the field of early childhood education, communicates it so clearly, “Adults must defend children. We adults must see the real humanity in children, the humanity that will take our place one day if we are to have social progress. Social progress means that the next generation is better than the one before.” Adults and especially parents and educators have an even greater responsibility to ensure that children are taught the necessary media skills needed to be active discerners of information.

The essence of media literacy, underpinned by critical thinking, springs from the ability to pose vital questions: who authored this? Who benefits? Who is affected? Such inquiries serve as a foundation for interpreting messages, discerning fact from fabrication, and forging healthy relationships with digital media.

The education of critical thinking skills for children, and society at large is an investment with far-reaching impact. These skills, when diligently developed, grant children the capability to responsibly harness technology and sift through an avalanche of information with acumen.